Thursday, August 18, 2011

Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

English actor Charles Laughton establishes himself as one of cinema’s finest actors, especially in historical film roles, with his Academy Award winning performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII. The history-based drama brings to life the King of England who ruled with absolute power, at the same time was one of the harshest, egotistical, and insecure kings ever to rule. Laughton’s performance depicted in the film humanizes the man that lived as if he was the next powerful thing to God. The film would mark first in the Hollywood community opening up the industry to the acceptance of artistic film genius seen outside the United States, even if it was only from their cousins from across the ocean in the United Kingdom.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a historical drama depicting King Henry VIII struggle to find a queen that supplies his needs, ultimately going through six wives. Charles Laughton plays the loud, glutinous, and egotistical King of England as he seeks to finds a proper suitor for himself. The film begins as Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon), Henry’s second wife, is to be executed allowing him to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). Despite receiving that which Henry wished so much for, a son and heir to the throne, Jane dies from difficulties of childbirth. To follow is Henry’s reluctant will to remarry and expand his power and his kingdom. First there is the very short marriage to a German noblewoman, Anne (Elsa Lanchester), but both of their hearts are not in the arrangement ending the marriage on the wedding night. After that divorce Henry marries the very beautiful and ambitious Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), who during the relationship has an affair with the handsome Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat), ending with both being executed for their sins towards the king. Henry is left with years of sorrow ultimately marrying in his old age Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg), the woman that would take care of the King in his later years.

Despite the picture inaccurately dramatizing the life of Henry VIII, Charles Laughton brings the story and the character to life. Laughton’s award winning performance brings to the screen a man that is full of his own ego, doing anything and everything he thinks should he as king should be able to do, and at the same time is desperate for a companion, someone to share his life and love with. He creates a man that is full of himself and all the sinful desires of the world, refusing to be looked down on, but Laughton is able to turn a corner and assemble the idea that the king is in fact a child of a man ever looking for the comfort of a person that would balance him out. Though a British produced picture, this film has all the grandeur of a big Hollywood production, clearly winning the respect of industry notables, gaining an Oscar nomination for best picture (the first time a foreign film would be nominated),  and an Oscar win for its star, Charles Laughton.

The film was a great hit for producer/director Alexander Korda and his new company, London Films. The Hungarian filmmaker would make many films in many countries, including the United States, but settled in London, England, and with the help of a couple pictures he would direct and staring Laughton, the film company would enjoy success into the 1950s.

With the success and prestige of the picture Charles Laughton established himself as one of the finest actors in historical period films. Previously seen as Nero in Sign of the Cross, where he embodied another lavish ruler, Laughton would continue a career a playing large roles in grand period pictures. This if fact would not be the only time Laughton would portray King Henry VIII, reprising the role in the 1953 film Young Bess. The Private Life of Henry VIII marked the first major role for actress Merle Oberon, who played Anne Boleyn , earning her notoriety. Also the film allowed Laughton to work alongside his wife Elsa Lanchester, playing the German Anne of Cleves who humorously makes herself unattractive to Henry ending their marriage on their wedding night.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a good picture and an important part to the career of Charles Laughton, the shining star that took the load of this movie on his back and delivered with an outstanding performance. Superficially the Henry character is over the top and boisterous, but that is the marvel of the character acting that Laughton brought with him. Not meant to be taken as complete historically accurate, the film provides an enthralling story of a powerful man ever trying to find happiness in things one cannot buy.

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